1536 Setting the record straight

Fight or Submit: Standing Tall in Two Worlds
by Ronald M. Derrickson

Toronto: ECW Press, 2020
$34.95 / 9781770415669

Reviewed by David Milward

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Sometimes there is just no winning for Indigenous peoples. If Indigenous peoples remain in poverty with no meaningful economy to sustain themselves, it becomes easy for non-Indigenous peoples to label them with stereotypes of being addled addicts and lazy burdens to society. But what if Indigenous peoples actually do show initiative and begin to make economic progress?

A historical example is actually quite embarrassing for Canada. There has often been a widely held assumption that Indigenous peoples were too primitive, too caught up in backward hunter-gatherer cultures, to ever have any capacity to succeed at agriculture. This viewpoint has been advanced even as recently as 2008 in a book called Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry by Frances Widdowson and Albert Howard.[1] The work of history professor Sarah Carter has proven otherwise. Indigenous peoples in 19th century Western Canada actually did succeed at agricultural farming. Indigenous farmers in fact often outsold their non-Indigenous competition with better yields, party because Indigenous farmers understood local weather patterns better. Non-Indigenous farmers feared and resented Indigenous competition, and so they resorted to the advantages that were at their disposal. They lobbied and pressured local politicians in western Canada to stifle Indigenous competition. And the politicians were only too willing to cater to the demands, as the Indigenous farmers did not have the right to vote. A new policy restricted Indigenous farmers only to old hand-held implements, or otherwise manufacture their own tools by hand, in order to place them at an intentional disadvantage. Indigenous agriculture was killed in its crib by racist hypocrisy.[2]

Ron Derrickson. Photo by West Kelowna Photography

The story of Ron Derrickson, as told in his Fight or Submit, shows that history repeats. Or at least that history often tries to repeat whenever it can. Derrickson often had to fight back against racist children in school, and was physically abused by the school principal, as part of a childhood background that will be all too familiar to a lot of Indigenous children even today. But step by step, day by day, he begins to build successful business ventures with creative planning, a keen eye for opportunities that others don’t see, tough negotiations when needed, and the soft touch of diplomacy that can build mutually beneficial relationships with the right people at the right moments.

He eventually became chief of the Westbank First Nation, for the first of what would amount to six terms. And that’s when he turned his business acumen to the advantage of the First Nation itself. One of his early efforts was to turn upside down the reserve leasehold system sustained by the Ministry of Indian Affairs that previously allowed outside interests to lease reserve land at dirt cheap rates. Efforts to get a fairer return on the leaseholds that would benefit the First Nation led to some of the leaseholders, an association of trail park renters, hiring a hitman to murder Derrickson. Derrickson barely survived the attempt on his life, shooting his assailant in the shoulder after being struck multiple times by a sharpened still bar. When that didn’t work, public accusations of corruption and pressures on federal politicians to investigate followed. The Hall Commission, the end result of all the efforts, concluded that Derrickson had done nothing wrong.

Westbank First Nation

Another instance was of trying to exercise Indigenous sovereignty by implementing a system of band-issued logging permits so that the First Nations people themselves could benefit from logging on their ancestral lands, where previously the big logging companies were reaping all of the financial benefits. It goes without saying that the endeavour met with fierce opposition from British Columbia politicians.

Therein lies the conundrum of how Indigenous peoples usually just cannot win. Amount to nothing in terms of wealth and prosperity, and expect to get hit with all the negative stereotypes in full force. Show some initiative that will actually mean economic progress for Indigenous peoples, and by the way no longer depend on handouts? Expect fierce opposition to keep Indigenous peoples in their place as the economic progress will very often be at the expense of non-Indigenous economic interests. Derrickson himself sums it up in an interview after the release of his book: “Before when we were poor, everybody said ‘Look at those lazy Indians sitting on their land and doing nothing.’ Now they say, ‘It’s just a shame, they get everything.’ You can’t win.”[3] But Derrickson and the Westbank First Nation have won, as they remain one of the most prosperous First Nations in the country. And that’s despite enormous opposition that would convince most people to give up.

Westbank First Nation logo, featuring Ogopogo

Derrickson has more than one motivation for writing the book. One is to “set the record straight.” He often still has to live with assumptions that he enriched himself through his tenure as chief, and that it was his primary motivation for taking on the job. He relates during the same interview that his personal business interests often lost money during his tenure, as being chief distracted him from managing his own businesses.[4]

Derrickson is also motivated to give Indigenous peoples a message of hope, that Indigenous peoples can carve out their own destinies and make good lives for themselves, despite the odds and despite the opposition. It is a good message I appreciate, and it needs to be heard by as many people as possible.

I genuinely dislike having to rain on the parade, but I feel the need to do so anyway. And I hope that the rain will touch the reader like a gentle mist that brings a little clarity. I do not at all want to rain thunder on what I still believe is a powerful and necessary message.

Westbank First Nation reserves near Kelowna

Firstly, I have no doubt that Derrickson brought a combination of powerful personality and a distinct skill set that helped bring the Westbank First Nation where it is now. But there’s no denying that Westbank also enjoyed some distinct natural advantages. It is situated in the Okanagan Valley, an ideal location for fruit orchards, vineyards, and wineries, and milling lumber. An additional plus is that Highway 97 is a crucial transportation route that connects multiple municipalities such as Penticton, Kelowna and Vernon. A stretch of that road runs through the Westbank First Nation. That placed Derrickson in the perfect place to drive a hard bargain when British Columbia needed to widen Highway 97. And that in turn led to five strip malls being developed on Westbank land. It is not hard to figure out that not all Indigenous communities will enjoy those kinds of advantages as they struggle to find their own ways out of poverty. My point remains that while the message is a good and positive one that needs to be heard, there is no denying that what worked for one community is not necessarily available for another. The causes and effects of Indigenous poverty and social dysfunction are complex, and can vary from one community to another. Our search for solutions likewise needs to be penetrating, thorough, and attuned to the complexities involved.

Ron Derrickson. Photo courtesy Kelowna Daily Courier

Secondly, sometimes the opportunities for economic upturn can bring their own set of challenges. Westbank’s opportunities may perhaps have worked because if activities like milling lumber and starting wineries are done properly and responsibly, maybe any potential conflicts with Indigenous environmental ethics are minimized. But what if the economic opportunities for other communities involve activities like fracking, oil drilling, or strip mining? One can expect that at least some community members will oppose such activities, no matter what financial benefits they may bring, on the basis that they contradict the environmental values that have been inherited from previous generations. That is exactly the scenario we have been seeing with respect to the CoastalLink Pipeline and the Wet’suwet’en people of British Columbia. Some Wet’suwet’en have supported the Pipeline with the hope that the financial benefits offered by CoastalLink can reverse poverty in the communities. Others have staunchly blockaded pipeline worksites, citing potential damage to the ancestral lands and sacred sites of the Wet’suwet’en. It has been a real source of division for the Wet’suwet’en themselves. Therefore the problem of Indigenous poverty and the search for solutions can be highly complex. Nonetheless, I definitely recommend the book for reading to anyone, even those with no previous familiarity with Indigenous issues.

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David Milward. Courtesy Ha-Shilth-Sa newspaper

David Milward is an Associate Professor of Law with the University of Victoria, and a member of the Beardy’s & Okemasis First Nation of Duck Lake, Saskatchewan. He assisted the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the authoring of its final report on Indigenous justice issues, and is the author of Aboriginal Justice and the Charter: Realizing a Culturally Sensitive Interpretation of Legal Rights (UBC Press, 2013), which was joint winner of the K.D. Srivastava Prize for Excellence in Scholarly Publishing and was short-listed for Canadian Law & Society Association Book Prize, both for books published in 2013. His most recent book is Reconciliation and Indigenous Justice: A search for ways forward (Fernwood Publishing, 2022). David is also the author of numerous articles on Indigenous justice in leading national and international law journals. Editor’s note: David Milward has recently reviewed books by Cherie DimalineBilly-Ray BelcourtChrista CoutureDarryl LerouxBob Joseph with Cynthia F. Joseph, and Elspeth Kaiser-Derrick for The British Columbia Review.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster

Endnotes:

[1] Frances Widdowson & Alberta Howard, Disrobing the Aboriginal Industry: The Deception Behind Indigenous Cultural Preservation (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2008)

[2] Sarah Carter, “’We Must Farm to Enable Us to Live’: The Plains Cree and Agriculture to 1900” in Chris Kitzan & R.D. Francis, The Prairie West as Promised Land (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007), p. 103.

[3] Barb Aguilar, “Setting the record straight on a colourful life” The Daily Courier [Kelowna] (March 17, 2021).

[4] Barb Aguilar, “Setting the record straight on a colourful life” The Daily Courier [Kelowna] (March 17, 2021).

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